BBC bias – who should be given the mic?
In certain circumstances, it is apt and right that when a political debate is represented in the national media, there is balance there. In the US for example, with the country so often split 50/50 between supporters of Republicans and Democrats, both sides deserve equal representation. And in the UK, the Lib/Con coalition and Labour between them represent 621 of the 650 seats in Parliament, so it makes sense that they get the bulk of the representation between them. However, when a debate is so one sided, when a discussion has been made and a decision taken, and one side is overwhelmingly supported, equal representation is a distortion of the truth. We see this in the media so often, where controversial mavericks with wildly unorthodox and unsupported views are placed alongside eminently accepted individuals with well proven credentials. Climate change, Holocaust denial, 9/11 conspiracy theorists. This has happened many times. And now, it has happened with the issue of women bishops in the Anglican Church.
On the 20th November 2013, the General Synod of the Church of England voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ordination of women Bishops. The final count was 378 in favour, 8 against and 25 abstentions. The support was largely thanks to a motion chaired by the Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend James Langstaff, and drafted by a steering committee which contained people from all across the ideological spectrum of the Church of England with regard to the ordination of women. From the character of the debate, it was broadly accepted that although there were some who didn't like the idea of female bishops, they were prepared to accept it given the measures that had been put in place (the Independent Reviewer – or "Ombudsman"). But if you watched the BBC at approximately 7.30 the evening after the vote, this wasn't the picture you got.
First, there is the somewhat minor point that the BBC put a typo into its side scrolling ticker at the base of the screen. For the entire duration of the interview, the BBC was reporting that the vote was won 387 rather than 378. While this is not important in itself, it is rather ironic that the BBC then chose to give the pro and anti sides in the women bishop debate equal representation when they apparently thought the gap was nine votes more than it actually was. Suzie Leafe, Director of the Conservative Anglican group Reform (whose website's "about us" statement says "the Church of England is well placed to bring the gospel to this nation but only if it stays true to the Bible") was placed alongside Reverend Canon Robert Cotton of St Mary's and Holy Trinity Church Guildford. They were asked for their reaction to the day's events, and interviewed fairly broadly about their views. However, only Ms Leafe was asked about the Biblical basis for her views. Reverend Canon Cotton was not invited to explain the Biblical justification for his position supporting equality. This only further moves to support the notion in people's mind that the Anglican Church is home to a self-warring clan of theologians who base their decision on what is popular ahead of what is Biblical.
While the BBC's intention was perhaps noble, giving equal airtime to both sides when one side had forty seven times more support than the other was deceptive.
It creates an implication that these views have equal weight within the Church of England. The reality couldn't be further from the truth - 378 to 8 translates as 92% to 2% (with the 25 abstentions making up the final 6%). By this logic, at the next election the BBC should put Caroline Lucas, with her single Green party seat, to debate David Cameron with his 210. And if Ms Leafe, and her objecting vote deserved representation, why not also one of the 25 abstainers?
It also failed to take into account that the debate – even for orthodox Anglicans – has well and truly moved on. The views of the minority are not to be trampled on, which was the central effort of the latest round of legislation put before the Synod. But the general consensus among Synod members is that the new legislation has been a success in accomplishing coexistence within the Church. If the BBC had wanted a wider plurality of views, would not a better alternative have been an opponent of women bishops who voted in favour because they believed they had been given sufficient concessions? Based on the content of the debate, there were plenty such candidates from this camp to choose from. Even the entire Catholic Group in Synod has accepted that this legislation package ensures "our theological convictions will continue to be within the spectrum of Anglican teaching, and the commitment to provide appropriate bishops and priests for our parishes". Why not invite one of their members to the table?
Another thing to note is that it would have been far from impossible for Reverend Canon Cotton to explain opposing viewpoints himself. It was clear he was not at all myopic in his understanding of their grievances. Or else perhaps the BBC could have invited a member of the steering committee other than Ms Leafe to be interviewed, someone who witnessed the internal C of E debate for themselves and understood the views of those in the tiny minority that could still not accept the reworked legislation, but ultimately did not share them.
While it is of course true that minorities should not be trampled over, nor should they be given positions that fundamentally misrepresent the level of support they enjoy. In this case, it would have been a far more accurate representation of the current status on women bishops to have had a supporter on the programme alongside someone from the vast majority of the traditionalist camp that has accepted the degree of provision made for them in the new legislation.
Such questionable selections by the BBC only serve to reaffirm the belief of many Christians that it is unwilling to represent Christianity in Britain as it is, and would rather represent it for what it would like the country to believe it is – a hotbed of infighting and contention. If anything, the vote on Wednesday proved that the Church of England is capable of creating genuine unity from deep and wounding divisions. Now that really would have been worth the BBC's air time.